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Film "Too Big To Fail" is a financial horror show

By Dan Wilchins
/ Source: Reuters

By Dan Wilchins

NEW YORK (Reuters) - To the producers of the film "Too Big To Fail," the story plays like a horror movie.

It covers the period between the failure of investment bank Bear Stearns and the passage of the U.S. bank bailout program, and it depicts a relentless series of mishaps where every problem is succeeded by the emergence of a new problem.

"You keep thinking you've got a handle on it, and then the knock comes on the door, and there's a boogeyman again," said Len Amato, president of HBO Films.

That scary-movie quality reflects the reality of the events of 2008: the financial system was close to breaking down and every day brought a new calamity.

In the book "Too Big to Fail" by the New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin, the horrors are in abundance.

Then-Lehman Brothers Chief Executive Dick Fuld does not try very hard to negotiate with billionaire Warren Buffett for a capital injection just months before the bank goes under.

American International Group Chief Executive Robert Willumstad struggles to answer bankers' basic questions about the company's capital and credit after Lehman failed.

Morgan Stanley Chief Financial Officer Colm Kelleher admits to his board that the bank could run out of cash by the middle of the week.

"People tell me that when they finish the book they feel tired and anxiety stricken," Sorkin said. "That's what the story was."

The trick for the makers of "Too Big To Fail" was cramming 500 pages of financial meltdown into 98 minutes.

A lot of nuance is lost along the way. In the book, Fuld and his chief financial officer Erin Callan call Warren Buffett and ask if he would be interested in investing. Buffett makes an offhand proposal for a $3 billion to $5 billion deal.

Buffett then looks at Lehman's public financial filings and finds enough red flags to scare him off. When Fuld calls back, there is an awkward misunderstanding about Buffett's original proposal, and the deal collapses.

Later, a news story about Lehman being swindled out of $355 million in Japan hits the wires, and Buffett wonders why Fuld never mentioned the episode as he was trying to raise money.

In the movie, produced for HBO and directed by "L.A. Confidential" director Curtis Hanson, discussions between Lehman and Buffett happen off-camera. Callan, played by Amy Carlson, later asks Fuld, played by James Woods, about his reaction to Buffett's offer. Fuld says, "Screw Warren Buffett."

Time is sped up in the movie, so events that took weeks to unfold are telescoped into days or hours.

"It comes with the territory of making a movie, you're looking at a six month time frame, and movies have this relentless forward-moving structure," Amato said. "And it's a convention of making a film that a certain dramatic license is acceptable."

Sorkin's thoughts?

"They did a great job. They captured the peak moments of the book," Sorkin said, adding that he knew that not every scene would make it into the movie.

But, he said, "every scene in the book is my baby."

(Reporting by Dan Wilchins. Editing by Robert MacMillan)